Michael Chapman ~ Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967-2010 ~

Enthusiasts of 1960s and 70s British folk and roots music will be well aware of the emergence of singers who were also innovative acoustic guitarists of this period such as Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. Michael Chapman is another who was hugely influential at the time but, for one reason or another, has attracted less attention since those early days. Well, he has just turned 70 and the release of this double album of guitar compositions really ought to change all that and put him up there in the highest rank.

Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967-2010, (on New York label Tompkins Square), is a simple but brilliant idea. For several decades and across many albums and live performances Chapman has included occasional guitar instrumentals. Now the best of these have been rounded up and recorded again. So, despite the title of the album, these are all brand new recordings. If they were re-recordings of songs it might not feel right, but with guitar instrumentals it works beautifully to have them all recorded in one place, freshly and with excellent clarity. And age doesn’t seem to have diminished Chapman’s power or fluency at all, as he shows throughout a total of 26 tracks on the two CDs.

Michael Chapman then...

It’s mainly as a singer and songwriter that Michael Chapman has flourished artistically, with albums such as Fully Qualified Survivor (1970) and Navigator (1995) being the outstanding landmarks in a long and prolific recording career. Songs such as his classic ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ are so good that it was with some trepidation that I began listening to this all-instrumental album where there is no trace of Chapman’s singing anywhere. I am no guitar fanatic and was prepared, if not exactly for Boredom City, then at least for my attention span to wander here and there. This fear turned out to be completely groundless. Everything on the album is superbly played (with Chapman that really goes without saying) but more importantly each track is totally gripping and emotional in its own way, telling stories without the use of words.

...and now

On an album of such quality it’s difficult to single out individual tracks but the opening ‘The Last Polish Breakfast’ sets an almost impossibly high standard. It was good to hear ‘Naked Ladies and Electric Ragtime’ again (originally recorded on Fully Qualified Survivor) as well as the languid and still irresistible ‘Sunday Morning’, while the closing track to the whole project, ‘La Madrugada’, has Chapman in a vaguely flamenco mood. The styles are all over the place (in the best possible way) with ragtime, folk, blues, jazz, country, rock, and hints of gamelan and flamenco all on display. What begins as one style frequently melds into another on the same composition. Charles Shaar Murray’s appreciative essay in the liner notes makes the important point: “There’s nothing cold or academic about this music. Be any individual piece quiet or loud, ruminative or rollicking, there’s passion in every pluck.” Chapman adds his own laconic and often humorous touch with notes about each of the compositions in the CD booklet. For my money, this old Yorkshireman is not just up there with the best – he is the best, and a reassessment of his entire musical career is overdue.

Footnote: The album I was sent has Disc One printed on the CD but the music is for Disc Two, and vice versa. My enquiry to the record company about this error brought only this response: “Yes, we had a problem with a small number of units that must have slipped out.”

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